Popular essay topics and content pitfalls for GP

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Countless spy movies, sports documentaries and parenting seminars have reiterated that when under pressure, people tend to go with what’s familiar.  Hence, we need proper training so that we don’t flail instinctively and inadequately when the test comes.  As much as this advice may have been repeated a little too often, it certainly holds true for essay writing and the examples and issues we gravitate toward.

So today we’re going to talk about the elephant in the room.  Actually  there are probably several elephants in the room.  You know, those popular topics that students vow to do at all costs because they’re the only topics they’re interested in.  Then they eyeball the question for a few seconds and proceed to regurgitate every seemingly relevant thought or anecdote they can think of on that topic.  Sometimes, they get lucky and pass or scrape a B or C grade.  Other times (often times?), their cyclops-style optic blast of thoughts lands them in the less desirable “U” , “S”, “E” band of scores.  Like way below 50%.

So, what’s to be done?  Well, there are some general principles we should observe when tackling questions, including reading the questions carefully for implied assumptions and required lines of argument.  Beyond these, however, many of you are still going to opt for essay topics in areas you’re comfortable with.  So if there’s no escaping that, here is a non-exhaustive list of content-related pitfalls you should be aware of.

i. Technology

Ahh, technology.  Where would we be without our beloved computers, mobile phones, and automobiles that make things more convenient and make us feel more comfortable.  Did I mention the convenience and comfort?  And the err… err… oh, the Internet!  Yeah… and… err… planes?

So one thing we need to be aware of if we’re going to write about technology questions is that technology is very broad.  Not so broad, perhaps, that you should talk about culture as a technology (which some academics have argued), but broad enough that any answer that deals only with a limited set of “obvious” communications and transportation devices is in all likelihood going to be limited.

Consider technology used in medicine, warfare, environmental engineering, the classroom etc.  The same device could yield different results and changes in different settings.  The same chat software that you use to talk about school with your friends is used by fortune 500 companies to communicate with contractors doing outsourced work halfway across the globe, with the attendant upheavel in the workplace (the “I lost my job to a factory in China or call centre in India” argument).  The same search engines and webpages that help you find examples for your homework assignment (and videos to procrastinate with) also pose threats to the livelihoods of content creators and performance artists.  The same in-vitro fertilisation techniques that get ethically dissected may also have given life to your friend sitting across the classroom.

Bottom line for Technology essay questions:  Read up, keep current, push implications.

ii. Media

Say it with me here…

OH… MY GAWD!  I *love* media questions!!!  I read People Magazine (or 8 Days, whatever), I know about the latest celebrity gossip, and, yeah, isn’t media violence just terrible?

Sure.  But the problem is, there are lots of nuances, and for that matter, many subcategories that count as “media” questions.

  • The future of the book
  • The evolving role and seemingly inevitable decline of newspapers
  • New media vs old media
  • Media bias
  • Advertising and its effects
  • Social media (though Cambridge seems to have ignored it, thus far…)
  • Plagiarism
  • Money and media
  • The influence of mass media messages on our opinions and lifestyles
  • Censorship

It’s not all that different from what you think media questions should be, but ask yourself how well you know these issues and whether you can recall recent developments.  If not, start reading up on these if you really want to do media questions.  An inappropriate, “forced” example that you memorised for another type of media question really won’t work.

P.S.: Many markers are coming around to the fact that blaming the media for all kinds of social ills is too simplistic 🙂

P.P.S.: True story: We’ve had students who know the moment a celebrity couple has an incident of domestic violence but are two decades off when asked when World War II ended.

Bottom line for Media essay questions:  Celebrity gossip counts for little in the world of GP (as opposed to the real world) and blaming the media for societal woes not only smacks of limited understanding but is also so 20th century

iii. Environment

Ok, so unlike with the technology and media questions, people can generally do better analysis for environment issues.  What’s lacking is concrete evidence:

  • Melting polar ice caps?  Where?  At what rate?  Compared to historical rates?
  • Pollution and congestion?  Sure.  Again, where?  How bad?  Reversible?  Can you say that in a more interesting way than how you describe it in Econs?  Especially since many, many people take Economics and are thinking about the same points as you (who *doesn’t* prefer doing market failure questions…)?
  • Green technology?  How well are these things working?  After all they’ve been around for a long time.  Which source of renewable energy is most promising?  What is the relationship between fossil fuel prices, government incentives, and viability of green technology?  Can you cite some recent hits and misses (Tesla? Solyndra?)

It also helps to think a little deeper about the world’s environmental woes…

  • Who is responsible for the problems?  The easy targets like developed countries and “greedy” businesses alone?  How about consumers (that’s all of us)?
  • Why can’t we agree on the exact extent of environmental damage and worse, why might we still choose not to do “sustainable” things when we know better?

Bottom line for Environment essay questions:  In a situation where many people are going to be recounting the same few valid but tired examples, you need to differentiate yourself with better stories and deeper thinking.  That takes work!

4 thoughts on “Popular essay topics and content pitfalls for GP”

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    • Thanks for the comment, Jo. Helps me know that the content is useful. Only getting to this now after a year of crazy work travel. Hope your exams went well. And thanks for the reminder on the Prejudice and Discrimination bit too. It is indeed on the agenda at quite a few schools. Let me go do some thinking for a post on that…


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